Howard Quilling's composition "From Quiet Beginnings" is the standout work on Navona Records' new release "Fire and Time."
"From Quiet Beginnings" was written on commission from the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra as part of Bakersfield's centennial celebration in 1998. Two years later, Quilling was offered the opportunity to have the work recorded in 2000 by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gil Rose for the MMC Recordings, founded by American composer William Thomas McKinley. Although Quilling paid for the recording session, he was not given the opportunity to consult with the conductor about the recording. Nevertheless, Quilling said he had no reservations about the performance.
"I was satisfied with it in that it was a good reading, the material was handled well and the orchestra was very precise," Quilling said.
"It was done well, with integrity."
Navona Records bought out MMC Recordings' catalog, along with the recording of "From Quiet Beginnings," and included it in "Fire and Time," a compilation record of contemporary American classical music that the producers say "asks us to not only reflect on our collective past but our communal future as well."
That directive is certainly appropriate for Quilling's work, which was inspired by Bakersfield's history from the perspective of the city's centennial.
"I was talking to a friend, and he suggested that since this is about the 100 years of Bakersfield's existence, to give a sort of musical chronology," Quilling said. "There's no precise episode that I'm trying to picture but it's what you might see if you were looking at a 10-minute video of the town."
As its title suggests, "From Quiet Beginnings" starts quietly, with a horn playing a simple theme accompanied by an oscillating string accompaniment. The theme and the accompaniment pattern are taken up by various instrument groups over the course of the work, which are then eventually answered by a second, more active theme. The number of instruments alternately grows and contracts to create contrasting periods of vigorous activity and repose, something Quilling said is a good reflection of Bakersfield's development.
"Everything that grows, grows in spurts and it plateaus, and grows again," Quilling said.
Quilling's piece is a dramatic standout from the rest of the works on the album, some of which have some interesting elements, such as Karen Tarlow's "Kavanah" ("Remembrance"), featuring Jewish folk music and even a quote from the "Dies Irae" of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. Quilling's piece is notable for its varied dynamic levels, its use and development of musical themes and its connection to 20th century composers, especially Bela Bartok, through the use of modal melodies and open harmonies, instrumental color, and the opposition of instrument choirs in an antiphonal manner. The listener is challenged at the very end when the orchestra sounds a low "A", as if establishing a key note one hadn't been expecting. The surprise ending requires repeated listening to connect it with the rest of the piece.
Regarding the entire album, one could wish Quilling's piece was placed in the middle of the collection instead of at the end, which would have provided some balance to the album when listened to in its entirety. The album does have some excellent enhanced features, including online copies of the scores for study.
Quilling said the production staff enhanced the now 12-year-old recording, bringing out the individual instrument groups and musical lines to clarify the structure of the piece.
"Fire and Time" is the first of three albums including Quilling's music that Navona is releasing this year. A second album, "Paradigms," which contains Quilling's work "Diversions," is scheduled for release this summer.
The third, the title of which is not yet available, will include Quilling's Alto Saxophone Suite, and is scheduled for release by the end of 2012.